Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Law as Moral Symbol

One of the questions which routinely gets asked in intra-Catholic debates about how anti-abortion principles should be acted on in the political arena (usually by people who are looking for a justification for supporting a 'pro-choice' candidate whose stances on other issues they like) is: Given the powers of the office in question, and given the current Supreme Court precedent in Roe v. Wade, how much is a politician's stance on the abortion issue going to actually make a difference?

Politically progressive Catholics tend to make the argument that since electing anti-abortion candidates doesn't seem to be overturning Roe anyway, that it's more pro-life to elect candidates who will "remove the root causes abortion" (which are theorized to be things such as a minimum wage under $15/hr, lack of nationalized health care, and failure to provide unlimited free pudding) even if they are not in favor or enacting any legal limits on the practice itself.

This in turn has the propensity to make conservative Catholics collective blood boil.

What, we are asked, is so important about voting for candidates who are in favor of banning or limiting abortion if they succeed very little in actually banning or limiting it?

Well, I think there is a value in it, though perhaps primarily a symbolic one. Still, symbolism is far more important than it is generally given credit for. It seems to me that our system of laws is, to a great extent, the most commonly accepted codification of what is "good" and what is "bad" that remains in our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith society.

Further, our elected representatives are, in a republic, to an extent representatives of our collective beliefs and political desires.

I think most of us implicitly realize this. For instance, if a politician announced that he personally believed that wives should be the physical property of their husbands and have no rights, I think most of us would consider him an unacceptable candidate for office -- even though our current legal precedents would make it absolutely impossible for him to in any way implement this particular set of beliefs of his. Still, even if his other beliefs were all extremely laudable (and even if he'd promised not to allow his beliefs on wife ownership affect the way he dealt with employees and fellow politicians) I think people would generally agree that someone holding such a set of convictions was unworthy of office.

I would maintain that there are certain stances (those which are sufficiently morally or politically repugnant to us) which should simply rule a candidate out from ever receiving our support, no matter how unlikely the offensive stance is to actually result in any real political action.

Similarly, there are things which are worth keeping illegal, even if we could theoretically make them "safer and rarer" by legalizing them. (I would consider prostitution an example of this. It may be true that prostitution could be more successfully limitted and regulated if it were legal, but I think it would send a sufficiently wrong message to legalize it that the practical benefits of doing so, even if one of those practical benefits was a reduction in total sex trafficing activity, would not justify the wrong moral message that the legalization would send.)


Jay Anderson said...

Excellent post!

I always use the example of a Holocaust denier. It doesn't matter how much we agree with that person's policy positions, if he/she holds such repugnant views about the Holocaust, he/she is disqualified from receiving the votes of reasonable people.

Similarly, pro-lifers aren't "single-issue voters". We just aren't interested in voting for people who think it's okay that it's legal to kill unborn babies.

Faith said...

My problem with this is that I think many supposedly 'pro-life' candidates aren't really. I think they just use the passion of the pro-lifer to garner votes when they have very little intention of really doing anything that would further the pro-life cause. Think of Reagan who gave us Justice O'Conner.

The other thing is that pro-lifers often are very compartmentalized about what pro-life means. Like Scalia, who is pro-life about abortion but really pro-death penalty at the same time. There is no sense of the sanctity of life. They come off as royal hypocrites. There is a disconnect in their thinking and frankly they scare me! Not that pro-choicers don't scare me more!

Sadly, neither party represents what Catholics are truly supposed to believe, so we have to choose the lesser of two evils. We have to believe the pandering Republican who spouts pro-life slogans because there is no alternative. Pro-lifers are in a position where it is easy for the Republican party to use them. It is sad.

Darwin said...

I think it's important to keep in mind that the Church has always dealt with topics such as capital punishment, self defense and just war differently than questions such as abortion, murder and revenge.

While many good and thoughtful people (including John Paul II, and quite possibly the current pope as well) believe that the death penalty is never necessary in a modern society, that's still clearly quite different from the situation with abortion.

That said, it is certainly the case that Republican nominated judges have only been slightly better on abortion that Democratic nominated ones -- perhaps partly out of negligence, partly out of incompetance, and definately in part because of the difficulty of finding candidates who have a judicial philosophy that necessitates overturning Roe for reasons beyond simply not liking it.

Jay Anderson said...

Somewhat off topic, but I feel I need to say something in Justice Scalia's defense.

I don't think one can say with certainty whether Justice Scalia is pro-life on abortion but pro-death penalty. I've followed his career for 2 decades now, and I can't say for sure what his personal views on these issues are.

What I DO know is that his constitutional jurisprudence is that of an originalist/strict constructionist. That means that he sees his judicial role as interpreting what the Constitution actually says in light of the meaning of the words at the time it was passed.

The Constitution says absolutely nothing about protecting abortion as a fundamental right, but does provide for capital punishment.

In short, as a judge, Scalia's personal opinions on these issues matter little. Even if he believed capital punishment to be awful (which, for all I know, he may feel that way) it is not his job as a judge to read something into the Constitution that isn't there. The same applies for abortion. Even if he thought abortion was the neatest thing since sliced bread, his judicial philosophy would say that since it isn't listed in the Constitution, it isn't his job to ensure it's legality, because that's a legislative function.

CMinor said...

Very interesting discussion. I wonder if the leanings and decisions of some of the Republican "Old Guard" should really be seen as a predictor of future results, though? I don't know that Nixon, Ford, or even Reagan, each of whom was responsible for at least one of those delightful activist justices, adhered to the conservative viewpoint on abortion. It seems like there are a fair number among the younger generation that do, however.

I'm curious, though. I would never vote for a pro-choice candidate when a pro-life candidate was a viable option; I'm undecided how I would proceed if at the next election we're left with two pro-choice candidates, one of whom otherwise would be generally acceptable to me and the other who would clearly not be. If the acceptable one were safely ahead of his opponent, I'd likely go for a pro-life third party candidate as a protest vote, but in a dead heat in which that third party was virtually guaranteed to lose the stakes on other issues might be too high to squander. Any thoughts?